Bill Oberst Jr.: The Face Of Independent Horror

“I think we..need horror. It helps to keep us human.”

 

 

Whenever a career spans almost two decades, it would come as no surprise if the pilot light starts to dim within the individual.
But we’re talking about horror here. The single most creative and wide ranging form of art in the universe. No two projects are the same.
Meet one of the most talented and hard working people in the business.

Bill Oberst Jr. has over seventy acting credits to his name within the last six years, most of them in the horror genre. While his portrayals of Jesus, Mark Twain and John F. Kennedy have garnered enough critical acclaim to make even the most dedicated actor content with his career, Oberst keeps moving forward. From Hallmark Channel films to portraying Southern Civil War general W.T. Sherman, Oberst has drawn as much respect and acclaim outside of horror film making as he has within.

Three of his more recent films- Nude Nuns With Big Guns, A Haunting In Salem and Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies – have achieved an impressive level of cult status following. Films like these and so many others in Oberst’s eclectic career have Bill considered to be one of the best horror actors working today, and rightfully so.

It should come to no one’s surprise that the Georgetown, South Carolina native acknowledges Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Sr., Christopher Lee, Robert Englund and Debbie Rochon as influences in regards to his top notch professionalism and fierce dedication to the career that he loves. The legends mentioned not only suffered in one sense or another for their beloved career, but they also draw a level of respect from their peers outside of the genre that is rarely offered to those who call the horror movie shelves home. Oberst not only travels and reveres the roads paved by yesteryear’s legends, but he has left his own footprint on the independent film community as a whole.

While he doesn’t confine himself to the world of splatter and terror, Oberst makes no qualms with the fact that he is known as a master of horror.

Whether he’s ‘The Facebook Stalker’ in the massively successful Facebook app campaign Take This Lollipop or slaying the undead as Honest Abe, Bill is as talented as they come and the horror genre is just as receptive to him as he is to it.

Recently, I had the good fortunes to discuss the genre and career of Bill Oberst Jr. with the good man himself.

Mangled Matters: You’ve been a full time actor for nearly twenty years now. How have you changed as an actor during that time?

Bill Oberst Jr: That’s a question I have never been asked, Justin. Now you are making me think! 13 years on the stage on the east coast  and 4 in film on the west coast….how have I changed? I’d like to say that I am a little better at it now, but just when I get big-headed enough to think that, I give a horrible performance and fall flat on my face. The honest answer is: now I remember to zip my fly. I’m serious. That is a common problem for male actors who start out in theater because you are always throwing on costumes and rushing out on stage. I went out on stage in front of 1,200 people and never realized I had forgotten until the laughter became a roar. So once that happens a couple of times it sort of sears into your brain and you remember. So I have learned one thing in 18 years of acting. Hooray!

MM: Being named ‘The King Of Horror’ by England’s ‘Erebus Horror’ Fan Poll must have been a real honor. To whom or what do you attribute your love for the horror genre?

BO: I love horror because of a man named Forrest J. Ackerman. He published a magazine which introduced me to guys who were making scary movies before I was born. Some of them had died before I was born. The magazine was Famous Monsters Of Filmland and I can still remember the thrill I got when each new issue would come in the mail. In the back I found ads for Dick Smith’s Monster Make-Up Course, which I took by mail, and Aurora’s Monster Models, which I ordered (they glowed in the dark, which scared my little brother so much my mom made me cover them up at night.)

It was in those pages that I learned about Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff and Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi and creatures and demons and vampire bats and zombies – and it was all because of Forrest J. Ackerman. When I moved to LA the first thing I wanted to do after I unpacked was to go see him and say thank you. He still opened his house full of memorabilia one day a week. I went. There he was, very sick and on oxygen but holding court in an easy chair wearing Lugosi’s ring from Dracula. I told him I had read every word of every issue all those years ago. He said “So that’s why you turned out so weird!” and laughed so hard his nurse made all of us leave. He died a month later.

 

Nazis- as evil undead as they are alive.

 

MM: You’ve carved an undeniable niche in the horror film realm, thanks in no small part to your devastating acting skills and your “creepy torso”. When you decided to become an actor, was horror always the preferred means of acting?

BO: I love horror and it seems to love me back. I’m a misfit and the darker genres are a great place for misfits to congregate together. Look, I was a weird kid and people made fun of me a lot. My solace was with monsters. I liked them. I sympathized with them. I wanted to play them. I still do. My dream is that maybe someday when I am dust, some other misfit kid might watch something I did and feel less alone. The world is a cruel place for the outcast. I’m not ashamed to be called a horror genre actor. I’m proud of it. I have the face for it. I have the body for it. I have the passion for it. Besides, in what other genre could the phrase “creepy torso” be considered a compliment?
I hated my face and body as a kid. I would have done anything to be normal and handsome. But now I’m glad I never was. I’m glad I am a misfit. It builds empathy. Yeah, for me, horror is home.

MM: Take This Lollipop was a sucker punch of a project, delivering on a real fear that many have these days. You knocked it out of the park as the Facebook Stalker. Congratulations on the day-time Emmy nomination! How did you get involved in this project?

BO: All credit goes to Jason Zada. He hired me. Jason created and directed Take This Lollipop and he made web history with it: the fastest-growing Facebook application of all time, the most popular horror-themed viral video of all time, the first Facebook app to be nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award…the list goes on and on. My manager Matt Chassin, the casting director Danielle Eskinazi and Jason Zada are to thank. Jason told me what to do and I did it. He said. He said “Go dark, Bill, Go deep and go dark.” The result creeped me out when I let it do my own Facebook profile. I was like “That sweaty son-of-a-bitch better not come to my house or I’ll kill his ass!” Then I remembered it was me.

MM: It is interesting to note that you’ve been a lead in two Hallmark Channel movies and also turned in an award-winning performance as Civil War General W.T Sherman, yet your work in horror is what seems to define you to most cinephiles. Has there been a specific role or two that you felt really defines you as an actor?

BO: Yes I would put Sherman up there (my first film role,) I’d put Lincoln up there (my best reviews so far,) I’d put the cannibal Dale from Dismal up there (the first of my redneck killers and the prototype for all the rest.) A crazy bastard, an ugly President and a lonely cannibal. I think that when Jourdan McClure’s Children Of Sorrow is released, Father Simon the cult leader will join that trio, if the early cut is any indication.

MM: Like most movie mad men, you are the exact opposite when the camera is turned off. How are you able to flip the switch so quickly and viciously for some of the roles you’ve portrayed? You certainly don’t steer clear from some really unnerving roles and film situations.

BO: I keep a lot of stuff packed away. I have my demons but they stay locked up until I need them. That’s my rule: no real-life crazy ever. Save that shit for the camera, where it counts. It’s cathartic to let the demon out but if you do it all the time he gets lazy and bored. The more I repress in life the better the performance for the camera. And the camera is king.

 

He cannot tell a lie, but he swings a mighty sickle

 

MM: Your latest film release, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is one I absolutely cannot wait to see. How cool was it to play an undead ass-kicking Honest Abe?

BO: When I was a kid I had a little model White House with little plastic figures of all the Presidents. I used to set Lincoln up on the porch and make him say The Gettysburg Address to all the other little Presidents and then make them cheer. In Disney World I always ran to the Hall Of Presidents first and hushed anybody who talked during Lincoln’s spotlight. I am a history nut and a Southerner and a Civil War nut. I was over the moon to be asked to do this role.

MM: As such a busy actor, what are some of your favorite states or places to film in?

BO: I toured to 40 states as a theater actor and I found something to like in all of them if I got to meet the people who called it home. It’s the people who make a place. I like eccentric people, so small communities are always nice. I’m a working class guy and I’m not comfortable around too much luxury or status. I live in Hollywood, which is actually a little shabby and run-down. I like that. It suits me. In Los Angeles your neighborhood is like a small town anyway, because nobody wants to drive unless we have to.

MM: What was your experience like on your first horror set?

BO: Heaven. It was the film Dismal. The set for the ramshackle cabin was…an actual ramshackle cabin! There were bats in the rafters. The cameraman fell through the floorboards. We sweated our asses off (it was Georgia in June.) The blood attracted hordes of flies and wasps. I licked a girl’s face and got to say lines like “Ya’ll gonna be fine – you got Dale’s word on that!” I wore my first gore-stained wifebeater. Like I said, it was heaven. The 14 year-old in me was very happy.

MM: You are also a dedicated motivational speaker at schools and churches around the country. What word do you spread during these events?

BO: I believe in God and I believe that He has a purpose for all of us; a vocation; the thing we are put on earth to do. The trick to a happy life is to find a way to make your vocation your occupation. We all have a gift. Mine is different from yours and yours is different from anybody else’s, The goal in life is not to accumulate possessions or to sedate ourselves or to distract ourselves – the goal in life is to find that gift that God gave us, hone it, make it the best it can be and give it back as a gift to other people. Besides, if you do what you love the money will follow, because you will be passionate about it and you’ll be good at it because you are passionate about it. The passionless life is a walking death. That’s what I say. Then I tell funny stories about show business. And do my Rodney Dangerfield impression. Then we eat.

MM:  Who are some of your favorite horror actors, past or present?

BO: Karloff, Chaney, Price, Lee, Englund, Walken, Dafoe, Campbell, Moseley, Rochon, Berryman, Todd…all the ones who are recognizable by just one name…that’s the gold standard.

 

 

MM: If you could portray one real-life horror icon, who would it be and why?

BO: Lon Chaney, Sr. because (a) we look a little alike and (b) he is the Father Of Cinematic Horror. Chaney suffered for his art. I’d like to try and pay tribute to him. It’s only been done once on film and that was 55 years ago. His relationship with director Tod Browning and the way they co-invented the genre on film is a subject I was just talking about with Mark Savage, who has cast me with Domiziano Arcangeli in his upcoming dark carnival tale of freakery, Circus Of Dread. Chaney haunts me. I am looking at his photo right now on my desk…he’s outside the sound stage at Universal adjusting his costume for Phantom Of The Opera, staring at me as he does each day. I want to play him. I want that badly.

MM: What are a few of the current projects you are working on? Are you able to share any cool info on any of them?

BO: I am off to St. Louis for a month to do Coyote, a micro-budget feature that really is a labor of love for all concerned. The young writer/director, Trevor Juenger, is attempting to blend art-house cinema with the horror genre. I’m an insomniac whose sleep-deprived visions are driving him to extreme violence. Juenger likes bizarre imagery, so we have mysterious nude women in the woods; unearthed corpses with chewed-up necks; a whispering black ooze that demands blood. I spend the last third of the movie crazed in my boxer shorts and a dogskin. I’ll give you an idea of the kind of spirit that motivates low-budget horror: Trevor texted me, “In Scene 159 where you throw up, would you do real vomit?” He had found a pill that induces vomiting and was dying to get a real vomit shot instead of the usual fake stuff. I did a video reading a little from his script for their fundraising campaign. Oh, and I said yes to the vomit, by the way. Duh. I can’t wait!

Then I get back to LA and do three in a row –

The full-length version of director Mike Bonomo’s award-winning short Assassins. The original 10-minute short which got Mike the deal to do the feature is still online. It’s worth checking out just for Mike’s brilliant dialogue. In the feature I play a world-weary but still very lethal hitman playing a game of cat and mouse with a bounty hunter. Mike wants some Jason Bourne-style fighting in it so we are training in the kali style of close combat.

Then straight to Gregory Blair’s feature film Scare Tactics, a Hitchcock-type thriller set in a cabin in the woods. I play a horror screen writer just out of a coma who is seeing things. Or is he? Should be a fun thriller.

Then on to Mark Savage’s Circus Of Dread, whose synopsis is “Two brothers – one a priest, one a career criminal – find bloody salvation in a mysterious underground carnival.” Mark is influenced by the whole history of exhibiting “human oddities” and his script is explicit, brutal and beautiful. I think Mark is planning to cast some actors who have real-life characteristics that would have made them ‘people of the midway’ back in the days of carnival exhibition.

I’ll stop there! Folks interested in what else is up can hit my IMDb page. I work a lot on purpose. I figure if I stay at the plate and just keep swinging, there’s bound to be a home run coming.

MM: Any last words?

BO: Just thank you. I don’t just mean thank you for the interview, although I am grateful for it and the thoughtful questions you asked – I also mean thank you for what you are doing with Mangled Matters to support the macabre and horror in cinema. Ours is a fan-driven industry and I’m a fan, too. So I appreciate what you are doing and how much time you are putting into it. The next generation will thank you for keeping horror alive. I think we will always need horror. In some weird way, it helps to keep us human.

 

I sincerely appreciate all of Bill’s time and support during this interview process. The friendship we’ve built since getting to know one another has been a true blessing and I look forward to many, many more amazing projects coming from Mr. Oberst!

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